Ordinary People, Extraordinary Situations: The Walking Dead

When asked why I enjoy genre fiction, by which I mean fiction that wouldn’t be put on the literary or even straight fiction shelf at the bookstore but on shelves with names like science fiction or fantasy or thrillers, I reply that it’s because I like stories about how ordinary people will react when placed in extraordinary situations. There’s more to it than that, but it’s sufficient for a short answer and it’s the closest I can come to an accurate one that wouldn’t have to be expressed at essay length. When I was younger the best fiction in the science fiction and fantasy genres was being done in written form but today much of it is in movies and on TV, especially on TV. Of those TV shows I’m familiar with, the best one about ordinary people in extraordinary situations is, without question, The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

It’s a show about an extraordinary situation that’s become so familiar, even cliched, over the nearly half century since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first appeared on movie screens that you’d expect it to be dead now itself, yet like the creatures that it’s about, it just keeps coming back and back and back. And somehow it just keeps getting better. Movies, video games and TV shows about the walking dead — colloquially known as zombies, but almost never referred to by that name in the stories themselves — continue to appear on a regular, almost monthly basis, and currently The Walking Dead is the best of them. It’s a TV show just winding up its fourth season that’s already on its third showrunner — that’s the producer-writer responsible for day-to-day decisions on the creative aspects of the show — and it just keeps getting better with each one. The characters — those ordinary people caught in the extraordinary situations — continually become deeper and more interesting, and to anyone whose been following the show since the beginning they’ve become almost like members of the family. The cast of The Walking Dead and the writers who create the characters that they play are as good as any actors and writers on a television show today, and unless there’s something I’m missing (I haven’t seen Orphan Black yet, so it’s still in the running), The Walking Dead has become the best genre show currently being produced on television. In fact, it might be the best show, period. Yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which (though I love the books, especially the first three, and think that the adaptation to television is masterful) sometimes becomes a little too complicated for its own good.

Last Tuesday night Amy and I had the good fortune to a see a presentation at the Writer’s Guild in Beverly Hills hosted by Chris Hardwick, star of Talking Dead, the show that follows The Walking Dead every Sunday night on AMC. His guests were Scott Gimple, the show’s current showrunner, Bob Kirkman, creator of the comic book that the show is based on and a frequent writer for the show itself, Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie, and Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn. The program ran for two hours and, as you can imagine, it was much too short.

Walking Dead Panel

From left to right, Chris Hardwick, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Lauren Cohan and Steve Yeun.

Much too much happened for me to give you a full report, but I can make a few observations:

  • Bob Kirkman is one of the most outgoing writers I’ve ever seen and took immediate command of the room. If Hardwick hadn’t been available to host, Kirkman could have done the job handily with no preparation whatsoever. He was witty, smart and obviously quite proud of, and amazed at the success of, his creation.
  • Scott Gimple is a quiet, intelligent man who probably shouldn’t be put in a chair next to Kirkman, because Kirkman’s larger than life personality (which goes with his somewhat larger than life physique) pretty much left everyone except Hardwick in his shadow. I think Gimple’s the best showrunner the program’s had yet, as proven by the masterly way he’s divided the cast up in recent episodes so that we can get to know the characters better through individual vignettes on the way to what will obviously be their inevitable reunion after the battle with the Governor and the destruction of the repurposed prison they had been living in sent them all scampering into the woods at the end of the first half of the current season.
  • Steven Yeun, as Amy noted after we left, is a lot like his character Glenn on the show — quiet, sweet, handsome and softspoken but with enough stage presence (and distance on the panel from Kirkman) to hold his own in the conversation.
  • Lauren Cohan is nothing like her character Maggie, except that she also seems to be a nice person. She was raised in New Jersey until the age of 13, at which point her family moved to England, so she has one of those peculiar mid-Atlantic accents that fluctuates back and forth between American English and British English in a way that would have made her origins hard to pin down if I hadn’t looked them up on Wikipedia first. So naturally she plays someone with a rural Southern accent. She’s also quite beautiful and cleans up nicely when not covered with zombie guts.
Partial Walking Dead Panel

From left to right, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Lauren Cohan and (partially cropped) Steven Yeun.

It was a great evening and I was glad that we went. If you don’t watch the show because it’s about zombies, you’re making a mistake, because like any good genre show (or book) it isn’t really about the implausible elements that make up its premise. It’s about the people who become involved with those implausible elements. And on this show those people are so brilliantly depicted that by the third season — which is when I think the show goes from being good to being great — you’ll be so caught up in the lives of these people that you’ll forget that you were ever put off by the idea of a zombie show, even when you’re watching very sharp knives being driven into the brains of the restless undead. The first three seasons are available on Netflix Streaming and I suspect the fourth will be shortly.

(For those of you following my discussion of video games as virtual reality, it should return in my next post.)

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